Absurdism, Art, Rhetoric


Edwin McKenzie, of no fixed abode, was painted many times by the artist Robert Lenkiewicz, between the late sixties and early eighties. Because he lived as a vagrant in a circular container overlooking a rubbish tip in Plymouth Lenkiewicz renamed him Diogenes, after the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. Diogenes’s philosophy was “live while you can and live in clover, when you’m dead, you’m dead all over”. He was born in 1912 and claimed that he had smoked a pipe since he was twelve, was a former lightweight boxer, designed and built the Plymouth Civic Centre, had won the Derby twice and the Grand National once, had played for Arsenal, and built the Tamar Bridge. Diogenes stood sentinel at a desk at the door to the artist’s studio demanding 10p for entry claiming the title ‘secretary’. When Diogenes died in a Plymouth hospital in 1984 Lenkiewicz and several of his children surreptitiously gained entry to the hospital morgue, wrapped the corpse in a winding sheet and stole it away. He was embalmed the next day, encased in transparent resin and remained under the bed of Lenkiewicz’s son for some weeks while he was revising for his A’ levels at an adjacent desk.

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Books, Film, Rhetoric

Rats in a cage

Question: is it better for a human to choose to be bad than be conditioned to be good?

The American psychologist B. F. Skinner believed that human behaviour was determined by environmental variables rather than free will, and that by systematically altering those variables human behaviour could be modified. In this way humans could be conditioned to display good, rather than bad, behaviour. He developed his theory of applied behavioural analysis from experiments he conducted in the 1930s on rats. He invented and constructed an enclosed soundproof cage with food dispenser that a rat could operate by pressing a lever, called a ‘Skinner box’. Continue reading

Absurdism, Books, Rhetoric

A fellow of infinite jest

Recently I summarised, dissected, reviewed and analysed Cervantes’s masterwork Don Quixote. It elicited a request for further classic works, more revered than read, to be so treated. Here, in a continuation of that public service, therefore, is my rumination on an English comic novel: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Lawrence Sterne, first published in York in 1759.

The Monty Python team once held an All-England Summarise Proust Competition in which the finalists were required to summarise A la recherche du Temps Perdu, once in swimsuit and once in evening dress. Continue reading

Books, Rhetoric

A strident avenger for insulted human reason

Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles…useless words! A Russian doesn’t need them.” This quote, above a Penguin logo, has appeared on posters around London outraging sentiment. It has been accused of promoting ethnic-hatred; a petition to have the posters removed has been launched; Russian State media has thundered against British state-sponsored Russian-bashing; shrill social media moralists are on the march; a complaint is being made to the UK regulators. Continue reading

Photography, Rhetoric

# Refugees welcome

A photograph of a dead boy, face down, lifeless on the edge of the surf on a beach*. An image that has circulated the globe.

This image has, in the last few days, changed the policy of Her Majesty’s Government. The newspapers immediately called on the Prime Minister to show more compassion, more humanity. The Government, it is said, has been shamed by the image into altering its Syrian immigration policy. President Hollande has declared that the photograph has made a call upon Europe’s conscience. If rhetoric is the art of persuasion, then this image proves that photographs can be a type of rhetoric. It is, in this instance, a powerful but problematic form of rhetoric. This photograph has for the moment de-politicised the cause of the movement of refugees across national borders. Humanity, shame, conscience, compassion – this picture has instead raised what should be political to the level of the human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody. We are required to respond to the situation not politically but emotionally. By demanding a powerful emotional response this photograph decreases our understanding of the cause of the problem. Continue reading

Miscellaneous, Rhetoric

A first year in blogging; a retrospective

This blog was created by me twelve months ago. Re-reading the posts now, they cover some diverse oddities: boxing, nail polish and Dada, the First World War, excrement, post-war Paris bebop, burnt manuscripts and the severed head of a regicide, a urinal, Hitler’s bath and Leica cameras. What possessed me in my mid 40s to start writing for the first time? Why am I despatching these absurd contemplations out into the world? Continue reading


Eulogy for Mary Freeland

My grandmother, Lady Freeland, died aged 92, in 2012. This is the eulogy I gave at her funeral in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, Coggeshall, Essex two years ago this week. It was published at the time in a slightly amended form by the parish magazine of St. Peter’s. The editor removed all references to adultery and drug taking, probably for dubious reasons of rectitude.

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